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Hardcover Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon Book

ISBN: 067003472X

ISBN13: 9780670034727

Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon

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Book Overview

In Breaking the Spell Daniel C. Dennett explores how the great ideas of religion have enthralled us for thousands of years - and whether we could (or should) break free. What is religion and how did... This description may be from another edition of this product.

Customer Reviews

5 ratings

.......and he says it so nicely!

Dan Dennett begins this book with a fascinating account of a parasitic worm and expands on the idea of religion, religious ideas in particular, being parasitic within their human hosts. Very similar to Richard Dawkins' Selfish Gene idea of the meme. Worth reading multiple times.

Remember the Audience

It is not difficult to dismiss Daniel Dennett's latest work, Breaking the Spell, as an under-researched and unscholarly polemic containing many assertions that are dubious and unproven at best. Dennett, of course, would agree. The book says from page one that it is not intended to be a scholarly work, nor is it intended to offer definitive proof as to the evolutionary origin of religion. If this were what the book were trying to offer, then perhaps the ranting and raving about Dennett's lack of scholarship and his unverified claims would be more to the point. As it stands, though, Breaking the Spell succeeds in getting its intended message across, and it does so in a manner that would not frighten off its intended audience--the average lay theist. Essentially, Dennett's main thesis is that we should take steps towards developing naturalistic theories as to religion's origin. Dennett is not concerned necessarily with what particularly theory ultimately explains religion, nor is he trying to prove the necessity of a "meme's-eye view" outlook in explaining religion's evolutionary origins. Breaking the Spell is merely Dennett's way of broaching the topic, throwing out ideas that those who do have more experience than Dennett in these fields can attempt to refute or prove. The book is intended for lay people--specifically lay people who have religious beliefs. Dennett spends a lot of time cutting through the typical faith-based muck that makes it taboo to research or offer explanations for the origin of religion that don't mention God as the ultimate cause. He quite convincingly argues that it is in our best interests to search for a naturalistic explanation for religious belief and that the various taboos against such research are indefensible and needlessly silence inquiry. And, as far as this thesis goes, Dennett is entirely correct. It may be true that there is no naturalistic explanation for religion, but the only way to find out is to actively search for one--and to hide behind the veil of "sacredness" only betrays a fear that the truth will be contrary to what one wants to believe. Dennett, of course, says this much better and with much more precision and care than I ever could, so read his own words, because my summation of his thesis does not do it justice. As for Dennett's varied conjectures about the possible evolutionary origins of religion, he maintains that he could be wrong about any of them. He is not an expert, and he is only attempting to offer suggestions for lines of inquiry. Much of what he says doesn't appear to be so outlandish, though it would require a lot more supporting evidence than what Dennett offers, and some of his auxiliarry assumptions that people tend to criticize (like those about "memes") are not even essential factors in many of his hypotheses about religion. As a book offering a call for researchers and academics to explore possible naturalistic developments of religion without fear of reprisal f

Dennett's Dangerous Idea

Can religion be subject to scientific scrutiny? In this remarkable study, Dennett proposes that not only can be religion studied methodically, but that it should be. His suggestion will be stupefying to some, as he readily admits. Is your mind open to the notion that the vast repository of human values could be carefully examined? Then this book will provide many new paths for you to explore. He openly appeals to a wide audience, starting with his fellow countrymen. Dennett's ability to present complex issues, including those of social importance, in a clear and almost intimate manner should grant this book the wide readership he seeks. The beginning chapter, "Opening Pandora's Box", reminds us that what was long considered inexplicable or mysterious can be revealed. He anticipates the criticism that "spiritual" things or "faith" aren't qualities that submit to analysis. The task, he acknowledges, is immense, but can be accomplished. Certain elements must be agreed upon, such as the definition of "religion". What we call religion, Dennett, contends, ought to exclude "spiritualism", fanatic devotion to secular items such as ethnic groups or idolizing sports figures. On the other hand religion is a dynamic and variable concept and tight demarcation is neither possible or desirable. Religion, then, is a social system incorporating supernatural agents that can reward or punish. Writers preceding him, such as Robert Atran, Pascal Boyer and Walter Burkert are acknowledged as good starting points. Dennett cites them often as contributors to his thinking. His distant, but highly influential, mentor is William James. Although Dennett's atheism is well known, this book is anything but a call for the abolition of religion. Quite the reverse. He acknowledges the pervasive place of religion in human society. He asks how that came to be and thoroughly examines the various elements that comprise the makeup of a religion. Beginning with the concept of invisible "agency" as the explanation for unusual or unexpected phenomena, ideas about these agents became memes passed through and accepted by society. "Memes", a concept popularized by Richard Dawkins, are the mental equivalent of biological genes. Memes are ideas that replicate and expand through a population. In the case of religion, Dennett suggests, answers to the mysterious might be offered by society's older and wiser members. When such elders died, their transformation into agents themselves. It was almost inevitable, then, that human-like deities arose to be consulted and advise society on courses of action and behaviour. Once established, and with such powerful agencies underlying them, religions mounted a defensive barrier against inquiry. This "wall" which ranges in firmness from mild disapproval to vigorous hostility, has prevented science from posing rational questions about religion's tenets. Dennett counters that religion should not be excluded from the range of to

That Rarity: A New and Important Idea

Dennett's take on religion will seem polemical to some, but it's very nearly the opposite. Rather, it posits that Religion, as a sub-realm of anthropology, can be viewed as a natural phenomenon -- rather like language, custom, emotion, espression, etc. -- and as such should not be off-limits to the methods of science. He takes issue with Gould's "magisteria", in which Science illuminates the inert and Religion the 'transcendent' (or whatever it's supposed to do that Science cannot). In some sense, his analysis is very much in line with the evolutionary psychology movement, wherein the Mind is viewed as the product of evolution and human activity a product of the Mind. It's a materialist view, but, as Dennett painstakingly shows, It Works for an enormous variety of phenomena; why, of all artifacts and actions, should human religious practice be shrouded from the light of scientific inquiry? The central thesis of Dennett's book is *not* some warmed-over pastiche about how religion improves our fitness -- a point he makes with pinpoint clarity and that many commentators on evolution (and his book specifically) managed to miss. In a recent talk, he asked the simple question "how does the common cold improve our fitness?" The answer is simple: it doesn't. Rather, for IT to survive, it needs a fresh set of susceptible hosts; all that matters is that it increases its *own* fitness and reproductive success. We are a vessel for its transmission, and that is all we are, from its perspective. "Dennett's Dangerous Idea" suggests that religion, suitably defined (and this is a difficult issue to which much of the book is devoted) spreads not because it makes us stronger, faster or more cohesive -- its track record on the last is clearly mixed -- but because it hijacks us for its own propagation. This idea is subtle, akin to Dawkins' memes. Dennett backs it up in spades, and you'll simply have to read the book to take in his bravura performance. Which you should. It's terrific: sprawling yet closely argued, entertaining, brimming with 'the telling detail' and writerly vim.

Subject Religion to Scientific Scrutiny

Religion is commonly believed to be a stablizing influence in any society - but is it really? "Why not subject it to scientific scrutiny?" asks Daniel Dennett, director of the Center for Cognitive Studies at Tufts University. "Maybe it is just another bad habit." History has shown that science - despite wrong turns, egos, politics, jealousy, ambition - has a consistent record of being more correct than any other method of inquiry. Just ask anyone who bets their life on science every time they board a commercial airliner. Unique to religion, a theology's taboo against self-examination is brilliant. Guaranteed to cause controversy, Dennett addresses this issue and presents a plan. Dennett surveys various theories of religion: From Scott Atran - Religion is (1) a community's costly and hard-to-fake commitment (2) to a counterfactual and counterintuitive world of supernatural agent(s) (3) who master peoples' existential anxieties, such as death and deception (4) leading to ritualistic and rhythmic co-ordination of 1, 2, and 3; such as communion. This tendency to invent a supernatural agency is an evolutionary by-product - which involves exaggerated use of everyday cognitive processes - to produce unreal worlds that easily attract attention, are readily memorable, and are subject to cultural transmission, selection, and survival. Add a few hopeful solutions to the problems involving the tragedies of life, and you get religion. From Pascal Boyer - Every religion has these common features: (1) A supernatural agent who takes a specific ontologic form (animal, tree, human, etc.) (2) There is something memorably different about this agent (the animal talks, the tree records conversation, the human is born of a virgin) which is an ontologic violation. (3) This agent knows strategic information and can use it for or against you. Fun to read and not as dense as his acclaimed "Darwin's Dangerous Idea," Dennett has addressed this book to the believer, who knows in his heart he is on the right path. "If you are one of these, here is what I hope will be a sobering reflection: have you considered that you are perhaps being irresponsible?...If it [religion] is fundamentally benign, as many of its devotees insist, it should emerge just fine; suspicions will be put to rest and we can then concentrate on the few peripheral pathologies that religions, like every other natural phenomemon, fall prey to." Dennett clearly thinks God is made in man's image, as opposed to man's being a product of God's creation. In his view, the costs and benefits of religion need to be assayed with the scrupulous objectivity of science, and he outlines a plan to do just that. I couldn't agree more.
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